Friday, 29 November 2013

Spyder's Web: Red Admiral

This is one of two episodes of Spyder's Web that survive in colour, & in my opinion that fact does this episode no good at all. It also illustrates why I was so glad that Emergency Exit only survives in black & white. This is illustrated by a point (at 01:50 where a section of the film has been black & white & the colour springs back in. In black & white the picture is crisp, light & dark are clearly differentiated, but all this just becomes fuzzy when the colour comes back. This may have been partly because of the '70s palette of greys & browns that dominate many of the scenes, but I suspect it it because of a lack of restoration work on the part of Network. The colours in this episode look like a 1980s pirated video of the Avengers, & don't compare well to Studio Canal's remastering for the recent box sets. These two colour episodes really show their age. This is not helped by the opening computer scene which dates it tremendously, as opposed to the usual low-tech episodes, where one concentrates on what is actually going on.
This is another episode of Spyder's Web that feels more like a rather stodgy 1970s television drama, lacking the sparkle of, say, Emergency Exit- which I suppose is bound to happen with different writers. I think this may be because there is more interaction - or rather conversation - with other characters which seems to slow it down. This may be partly because of the argument about war & peace/family argument in the middle. You can feel the pace slowing down once they go to the sea side, & picking up again towards the end when Lottie & Hawksworth are listening to their tapes. Even the relationship between them is subtly different, even with the odd spat. I mean, Lottie never calls Hawksworth 'Tiger' once!
This is not to say the rest of the programme is a wash-out: I love the adolescent angst of the Admiral's son, Mike. Milton Johns is very well-cast as Arthur the sound man. The unusual use of technology is carried on by the use of bugging.
My main criticism of this episode remains the pacing. We are probably more brand-aware now than in the 1970s, but this doesn't *feel* like an episode of Spyder's Web. More attention to consistency of pace & atmosphere would have taken care of this.

Spyder's Web: Emergency Exit

Ever since I first watched through the only series of Spyder's Web, this has remained one of my favourite episodes, even though it has also remained strangely hazy in my memory. I have watched it at least three times, but bizarrely what remains in my memory the most is the street scene which forms the opening scene. That said, I would have had difficulty telling you exactly what was going on; I think this may be partly a penalty of such effective visuals - Lottie is totally convincing as a traffic warden, but Hawksworth looks like a man pretending to be a plumber - that they tend to be remembered over the plot.
I find it interesting the way the Network DVD liner notes phrase the premise of this episode: 'Spyder knows that the Viscount Employment Agency is a cover for the deployment of agents from the Other Side...'. Both the phrase & the capitalisation create exactly the right atmosphere of Cold War intrigue. In fact it way simplifies the case compared to the effect of the opening scene where we see Lottie shoot a man & then see Hawksworth fairly obviously planting a replacement man to pretend to be Lawrence Felton & confess to the murder of his wife. Lottie then confronts another man claiming to be Felton - still in her traffic warden's uniform, & calls him 'comrade'. The sum effect is to make this scene totally confusing, while at the same time the 'comrade' makes it very clear who the 'Other Side' are. I do love the way that Lottie the putative traffic warden tells Felton, 'You're double-parked, you know, I could have you for that'.
It is a bit of a theme in Spyder's Web episodes - things not being what they seem - but I love the way Hawksworth pretends to be a solicitor. The pretence theme of course extends as far as the fake employment agency, run by two men who are rather too obviously Russian spies!
Lottie & Hawksworth return to acting like an old married couple in this one, but their bickering covers a real difference of personality, where Hawksworth is very relaxed about the case, which serves to increase Lottie's anxiety about it. Once again Hawksworth excels in his man of action role, breaking into the employment agency to change their records to fit the man Spyder has planted. Can there really have ever been a time when any employment agency would have a whole drawer of Head Waiters? Hawksworth's Lottie's approaches differ in other ways, with Hawksworth - surprisingly thuggishly - being eager for their prisoner to have just a little accident. It's strange that each does not trust the other to handle this situation.
One of the most effective strands of this episode is the way the nothing-is-what-it-seems theme is at times turned on its head to become a theme of make believe & imitation. Lottie acts like a real traffic warden because she is dressed as one. Hawksworth - obviously - wears a suit to pretend to be a solicitor. He first comments that it is to keep the cold out, which echoes the reason one of the Soviet spies at the employment agency has given for buying a suit. This echo adds a layer of ambivalence suggesting that while the two sides are apparently completely different, there are or may be ways in which they are the same. Hawksworth then reinforces this by commenting that nobody questioned whether he was a solicitor at the court because he had the right rig on: in this episode appearances are both everything & nothing at the same time.
I think my favourite character in this one is Kalashnikov. I love the way he has all the English idioms & customs off pat in a rather textbook way, which nonetheless holds a mirror up to English Customs. He of course susses what Spyder is doing, that the man in prison is a plant. He manages nonethless to be a totally obvious caricature of a Russian spy, the pretend - being - acting - seeming theme recast yet again.
There are some plot similarities between this episode & the Series 2 Avengers episode, Intercrime, at least in terms of appearances, deception, a pseudo-prison setting, and infiltration of the other side by means of a plant. The difference is - this Spyder's Web episode is so much better than the Avengers episode. It handles the plot with a much lighter hand, avoiding the feeling of dread in the Avengers plot. Putting the heroine in prison - as Cathy Gale is - changes the whole feel, makes it much more heart-rending than it is if the person in prison is a character we're less concerned about, allowing our attention to remain on the whole plot rather than the Boys Own Paper issue of the fate of Our Heroine. This lightness - & sureness - of touch is seen in the treatment of the prison. There are attempts in the Avengers episode to make the prison appear like a prison, which are unfortunately rather unconvincing. Here the impression of a prison is given as if it was painted by an impressionist, & yet manages to give a much better impression.
Visually this is very effective, showing the same light design touch that makes the prison so effective. It rather makes me glad that so few episodes of Spyder survive in colour, since it is strikingly effective in black & white shades. I'm almost thinking that it would be less effective in colour.
It is possible to draw a deeper moral from this episode than that it is merely a jolly jape. By the time of the showdown between Kalashnikov & Lottie the effect of all the duplicity is - deliberately? - so confusing that you just want a break from it, & the effect of their involved conversation, when it also becomes apparent that they know each other & have both sussed the whole game, indicates that it is time for the two divided halves of Europe to stop confusing each other & relate in a different, more straightforward way, which can only be beneficial for humanity.

Spyder's Web: Life at a Price

This episode of Spyder's Web is in great contrast to the last one I blogged about, the Hafiz Affair, at least on the surface. To me it manages to feel much more claustrophobic, & uses that well-worn cliche of television drama, the private clinic run by a dodgy doctor. Perhaps that is why, to me at least, it feels much more like a relatively stodgy television play than the eccentric TV & sparkling dialogue that Spyder otherwise provides.
The plot is similarly imperialist to Hafiz, though, Lottie describes the point as defending the last remaining ten acres of the British Empire. This is one of the things that makes it clear to me that Lottie & Hawksworth are definitely servants of their masters - despite apparently independent personalities & doubts, they are definitely in the status of employees, & I can't think of an occasion in the series where they can turn down a job or criticise it. This is also similar to the ambivalence underlying The Avengers: ultimately the government, state & monarch are good & there to be served, even though the great & the good may go to the bad, or the state may be infiltrated by the other side. This is quite different - much more Establishment - from how I, at least, envision the zeitgeist of the end of the sixties & beginning of the seventies.
This episode is not without its more psychedelic elements, such as a delivery of nappies - to the documentary company's office - being used as a code! If this device were used in real life, it would probably be on the basis that it was so bizarre that nobody would believe their eyes. It is also not without post-sexual revolution elements as well, in Albert Mason's disastrous attempted seduction of Wallis Ackroyd.
I like the extensions of Lottie's & Hawksworth's personalities in this episode - Hawksworth nicely remains in his Bulldog Drummond role, which actually fits the plot of this episode perfectly, while I love Lottie's impersonation of a doting grandmother-to-be & the way she chats to all the other people in the clinic. She makes a sort of Nanny Ogg figure (from Terry Pratchett), putting people at their ease & getting them to open up, while Hawksworth is posing as a doctor, while his man of action role means he is the one who deals with the gunman.
Otherwise the only way I would criticise the characterisation is the Senora Delgardo comes across as a caricature of a - frankly - prima donna. That said, I do love the way her husband, being told he could not make his wife pregnant, had each of the doctors who said this shot! The stereotyping of Veronica Carlson as a northern woman is firmly in a continuing tradition of London-based & London-centric television. She's not too thick to wonder what's really going on in the documentary company, but goes against her earlier policy of saying nothing, which gets her fingers burned.
I like this episode for what it is, a relatively straightforward crime drama. I do like the device of South American revolutionaries further corrupting an already dodgy doctor, although I do like the ambivalence of the doctor's character, & the eventually upstanding character of the Matron (pictured smoking above, those were the days).
My criticism would be that the interest in this episode is added by things extra to the basic plot, such as Albert Mason & Wallis Ackroyd, which distracts from the personalities of Hawksworth & Lottie Dean, who surely should be central.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Spyder's Web: The Hafiz Affair

Since I'm taking it upon myself to give these programmes Avengers-style subtitles, this one can be: in which the Spyder does Danger Man with a few nods to Bulldog Drummond.
Actually only the Danger Man comment is mine (& really only the premise of this episode screams Danger Man, otherwise the treatment is quite different), the Bulldog Drummond one is Lottie's comment to Hawksworth. You see, what this episode chiefly stands out for in my eyes is the character development & the development of Spyder's Web as a body.
Hawksworth was introduced to the series as very much the individualist, yet in this episode it is plain that he needs a fairly rigid organisation to form a background. He finds Spyder's Web very difficult & is continually trying to find his bearings. If only one thing is clear it is this: he is not the whizzkid he seemed in the first episode, & Lottie is a better spy than he will ever be. Her intelligence is astounding: I love the instructions she gives Hawksworth wrapped up in a pill!
Hawksworth finds her apparently obsessive secrecy frustrating & will not accept that for security he cannot know who else is involved. Her comment about Bulldog Drummond places him firmly in the tradition of gentleman adventurers, who all seem to have the army background Hawksworth has.
Their relationship also develops: I find it quite touching that Hawksworth goes to check on Lottie when he hears a bang in the night. In this episode they interact like an old married couple, in one of those marriages where they seem to spark off against each other yet are actually reliant on each other. Hawksworth's questioning of the way Spyder does things makes me think that in real life I would think he is exactly what Lottie needs, to protect her from the dangers of her excessive independence.
The nature of working in Arachnid Productions is also made clearer: Lottie claims to have a string of awards for her documentaries, but on the basis of what we've seen so far spends precious little time making them, which cannot be invisible to her employees. Finally some wondering as to what is actually going on here happens in this episode.
I wanted to be able to say that the portrayals of black people & a newly-independent former colonial country, were not negative. True there are shades of acceptance: Hawksworth, true to the tradition he's placed in, mourns the taking down of the union jack; Lottie is more pragmatic. However it's interesting that she is the one who is a personal friend of the president: I feel Hawksworth wouldn't have a black friend.
There are stereotypes of an emerging country, their guide claims that slums have been abolished ('In the last half hour?' Lottie replies), & where the water & electricity in the hotel don't work. There are also good portrayals of cobflicting identities & emotions, in places traditional dress is rejected, accepted, forced on others & trotted out to entertain the documentary makers. There is an undercurrent of identifying the 'natives' with deeds of darkness, showing the extent to which this episode draws on gung-ho literature.
In fact the very premise of this episode makes me uncomfortable: Spyder is supposed to be an under-the-counter organisation of the British Government, set up to investigate anything too tricky for conventional methods. In that case the British government is not above interfering in the presidential election of a newly-independent nation, a paternalistic action with no doubt diplomatic implications. Interestingly, the Africans see the people from Arachnid Productions as suspicious right from the start, Lottie is known to them, so you frankly wouldn't want to send them anyway.
For a completely studio-bound production it doesn't do a bad job of giving an impression of being in the tropics by using sound effects. It even manages to give an impression of the sort of dark darkness you get with less artificial light, & even of the contrast of light in Africa. I like the twist in the plot, when Hawksworth does actually find the president. It is interesting how very different the plots of different episodes of Spyder's Web are. Obviously I'm watching them this week in the way that shows of this age were never intended to be watched, for that you have to watch them one per night or even one per week, on the same night & the same time. Watching them back to back as I am exposes them to a level of scrutiny they would never have had, but in this case it so far gives the impression that each episode draws on a different genre of popular literature, & then puts a twist on it.
My best line from this episode, said by Hawksworth: 'You might have warned me they also sent the hand he was clutching it in.'

Spyder's Web: Romance on Wheels

My top exchange in this episode:
Lottie: 'You're Henry Wormley.'
Hawksworth: 'God.'
Lottie: 'No, he's a small farmer of moderate means. *I'm* God.'
I love that Hawksworth decides it's to be pronounced Wumley, 'to rhyme with bum'.

Visually this episode starts off by feeling like the first episode by featuring men, presumably from a ministry, arriving at an abandoned quarry in the middle of nowhere. The repeated theme of betrayal however, feels genuinely surprising again, by the shock of throwing the man who has found two bodies, to his death in the quarry.
Nowadays the idea of mail-order brides is perhaps not as alien as it would have been in 1972, although I love Romance on Wheels's explicit advertising that they average two marriages per tour, such a good idea to make it clear what's going to happen. The country to which the tour goes with its 'ambiance of romantic opportunity' is not made clear, but it's behind the Iron Curtain, Lenin help us. Of course before the Wall came down, that's what Europe was like, quite literally divided down the middle, that was the real division, at least as far as we understood it on this side of the wall.
Romance on Wheels looks suspicious from the start, going to Eastern Europe to find a bride is dodgy whoever you are, & I love the way the minibus is described as a luxurious cruiser. It isn't, you can hardly hear the exchanges that take place on it. Of course it is suspected that Romance on Wheels are a cover for a KGB operation to move agents around Europe, since who went on holiday to Eastern Europe before perestroika?.
The identifdication of the baddies & any moral issues are very simple in this one: it's the Communists on the other side of the great divide.
I love the repartee between Lottie & Harksworth in this one: the relationship between them is becoming established by now. It's quite Steed & Mrs Gale in its power play: if these two were married it would be awful because they'd always be circling round each other. I especially love that Lottie goes on the tour & doesn't tell Hawksworth until she turns up in character.
Characterisation is good in this episode, almost to the point of parody, which makes them recognisable characters. The jolly hockeysticks character (who reminds me of nobody more than Joyce Grenfell in the St Trinian's films) is played with a very heavy hand. Nobody's that hearty! It is spoiled slightly for me by Peter Sallis playing the guide - it was another year before Last of the Summer Wine started.
I feel the element of parody is actually overdone here: the spying & references to Communism overdo it ever so slightly, to my mind. However I may be over-examining it, & this episode may be a jolly romp which does not bear the kind of examination I'm subjecting it to. On the other hand the traditional espionage theme does provide genuine tension: I like the way Lottie leaves a message in a spider's web to be picked up by her unnamed contact.
What lifts this episode out of the run of the mill is the point at which the driver of the minibus runs off, leaving the party stranded, a clever device to add an element of a traditional detective story to a story otherwise about spying. It is also not without its romantic interest, which amusing Lottie tells Hawksworth must be exceeded by them so that they get snatched by the KGB first.
However my main criticism of this episode is in the ending: Lottie & Hawksworth do get snatched but manage to escape by a simple swap with their captors: we don't get to see the mechanism of how they do it. They have merely managed to prove what they already knew, which makes it a very unsatisfying ending. There is an attempt to lift this with further hints of organisation, but all that really happens is that they go halfway across Europe to see what they already know.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Spyder's Web: The Executioners

Spyder's Web doesn't go in for titles in the same format as the later series of The Avengers, but if it did this one would be called 'in which Mary Whitehouse goes seriously off the rails'! In this episode a serious contemporary issue comes under the microscope: the question of indecency & censorship was very hot stuff through the 1960s & into the 1970s. Once again this realism distinguishes Spyder's Web from the world of The Avengers, which was self-consciously unreal, although this episode otherwise feels very Avengers. It is about an organisation called The Executioners, who supposedly kill those it considers immoral. The organisation consists solely of very Establishment figures indeed, who appear to take the law into their own hand. Here the Establishment is investigating the Establishment.
Once again sticking to its own time serves this programme well in making it respectably of its age & without pretence. it is unlikely nowadays that anybody would walk into an office & announce that they work there since yesterday, & have this elicit no surprise. This reminds me of the way Georgina Jones always manages to get a job in the place of Adam Adamant's latest case at the drop of a hat.
We get a glimpse of 'J Smith', the putative boss, who communicates marvellously by means of talking through a picture. Once again Arachnid productions sticks firmly to its own time & contemporary technology: no science fiction here. In this episode this is contrasted with the extreme traditionalism of Lord Rashmore's household. I particularly love the way the permissive film that Arachnid Films announces as a lure to The Executioners is called 'Libido 72'!
The plot of this episode works much better than that of the first episode because it is simpler, despite the twist at the end. In fact the twist in the plot - once again all is not what it seems - takes this out of the league of a straightforward thriller.
Given Lord Rashmore's own chosen solution to the ills of the modern world it is ironic that Wallis Ackroyd is reading Schopenhauer whose philosophy is about doing just that. Other philosophical issues in this episode include the rights & freedom of the individual, the use & misuse of power, & appearances versus the reality of morality. This last is embodied in the encounter of Lord Rashmore & Lottie Dean towards the end. Rashmore has all the appearance of being an upstanding gentleman, yet is suspected by H.M. Government of putting people to death because he disagrees with their morals, but he is actually not as bad as he appears, although I frankly found his approach to the people he 'treated' distasteful in the extreme. Lottie - who is pictured as the rock-solid one concerned by the possible effect of Hawksworth's actions - arrives at the house dressed as a nun, the embodiment of purity & care for others. She & Wallis try to compromise Rashmore's henchman with an appearance of trying to seduce Wallis. Rashmore sees through this - the apparent baddie seeing through the respectable facade of the actual goodies, which forces them to put him to sleep with a pin. This to my mind is no worse than he does to the people he 'treats' for their morals. Hawksworth comes across as much more morally ambivalent. I find his statement to Rashmore when he arrives at the house as unconvincing. He comes across as a bit of a Bertie Wooster 'silly ass' character in this episode, again a good contrast with the other characters. Plus of course much of the point of this episode is what would happen if the great & the good go completely off the rails.
Visually this episode works really well, Rashmore's traditional house contrasting well with the modern offices. Characterisation is strong, despite a larger cast the major characters are clear & well developed. I love Lottie Dean as a nun: the nuns' habits towards the end contribute well to the visual effect - especially when Lottie walks into a games arcade in the habit. The pace is just right, the interest is maintained, exactly the right hints are dropped to mislead the viewer without actually cheating by saying the diversionary tactic.
Unusually for me I'm frankly finding it difficult to criticise this episode. I would have liked more exposition of what happens to the six who have taken the law into their own hand, but I suppose that would have spoiled the morally ambivalent point of this episode. Of course in the age of Mary Whitehouse is paints those who set themselves up as moral arbiters, as dyed in the wool villains!

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Spyder's Web: Spyder Secures a Main Strand

Adam Adamant Lives! (Which I've also been watching & will be posting on) is often thought as a major imitator & competitor to The Avengers, wrongly in my opinion. I feel a more convincing historical descendant of The Avengers is Spyder's Web, which is not to say I think it (or even Adam Adamant) was consciously imitative. I think it more likely they & other series picked up things from the zeitgeist of the time.
That said, for me Spyder's Web in many ways feels like a Cathy Gale-era Avengers. The opening scenes of this episode - the chase across the field & the double-cross - are pure Avengers, because of the way they introduce the enemy & the element of insecurity, & place them within a pastoral idyll. This sense of English security containing rottenness is continued in the next scene, of a car drawing up to a solid middle-class home & the domestic conversation which follows.
However the man is supposed to be head of Exportease, which is a cover for an intelligence bureau: an interesting parallel to Arachnid productions, also a cover for an agency which does special jobs direct for the government. Miss Dean is actually nosing about Exportease right from the start, & nothing is what it seems in this episode of Spyder's Web. This would actually be my one criticism: the plot requires intense concentration, since it's so complicated. The characters are also not clearly introduced or adequately developed - except Lottie Dean & Clive Hawksworth - to become clearly defined. This may be partly because the series was originally broadcast in colour & this is one of the episodes which only survives in black & white. The twist in the plot, that Hawksworth is being as it were tried out for Arachnid Productions, even though he is already a secret agent, is not obviously coming until it does. Incidentally as Hawksworth is in Lottie's office to meet the Spyder, I love that he passes a poster of Peter Wyngarde (Jason King) adding a marvellously camp touch.
Hawksworth's character clearly has some John Steed elements - eccentric & individualistic, smart, sassy, & sexy, & yet also strangely an embodiment of tradition - his flat feels very much like Steed's series four flat. Harksworth's repartee is intelligent, meaning he could easily be underestimated, & there is definitely a chemistry between him & Lottie Dean. She also comes across as intelligent & sophisticated, providing a perfect amount of tensions between the two characters.
I very much like the relative lack of technology in this show - communication between agents is either by notes or by slides, which by 2013 standards makes it seem like the dark ages. I particularly love the scene in which the three suspects are summoned by strategically-placed notes. The makers of this programme were right to avoid the use of either up-to-the-moment technology or imagined futuristic technology, because it means the show has aged better. Slides used in a projector were  widely-available technology of the time, & so the show is not pretending to be anything it isn't.
And oh, how dated it does seem! - I don't mean this as a criticism, more as a plain statement. Until the moment Hawksworth & Lottie meet, & spark off against each other, it moves very slowly, very talky. It makes me wonder how this was received in 1972 - surely it couldn't have been considered serious drama, with the jokes about smoking made over a corpse, & even in the early 70s there was more lively telly than this. Spyder's web is often, rightly, compared in terms of production values to Cathy Gale-era episodes of The Avengers, but I feel they move more slowly.
I like the sets enormously, they are extremely visually effective. The external scenes don't look so good, & thus don't work so well in television terms, yet the internal scenes seem so very studio-bound. And yet I like Spyder's Web enormously, for reasons which I'm finding it difficult to put into words. I think what I like is the feel of it: the forty years since it was first broadcast are enough for it to feel far away in time & speak of a different age. It doesn't attempt the unreality of the Avengers, but I think attempts & succeeds at its quirkiness. The two protagonists are real characters - cards I suppose you could say - & I can't imagine for an instant that people that individual would last long in their world nowadays. It speaks to what is almost a different age from now, which is exactly how the Avengers succeeds, except to describe a world which never existed. The world of Spyder's Web may or may not have existed but it is now too far away to know.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

The New Avengers Series 1: The Last of the Cybernauts...?

No doubt an occupational hazard of being a secret agent is the danger of retribution by your enemies, and the cybernauts story arc demonstrates this to perfection. I started off these three posts on the cybernauts by watching the three episodes back to back, which I thought would be a simple repeat viewing but I was surprised to find that this episode of The New AVengers was totally unfamiliar to me, although I must have seen it before because I know for a fact I have watched all the way through the New Avengers boxed set.
I don't dislike the New Avengers, myself: I feel there are a few major differences, often in production values, but if you dig you can find the old Avengers atmosphere running under the surface. These differences are admirably illustrated by the opening scenes of this episode. The flashback to a previous birthday of Steed's, followed by a car chase and then another birthday party, doesn't feel very Avengers at all. Nor does the car chase. Incidentally I love the relative economy with which older cars are used as the ones to receive the battering.
What is similar to the previous two episodes in the cybernauts story arc are the themes of memory, time, loyalty, and value. A merging of the past and the present (illustrated by Steed playing a Stylophone on a grand piano) overtakes the fear of the technological future which dominates the previous episodes. In a sense the technological future is already here, the point is that it must not get into the hands of the 'wrong' people.
So this episode shifts the emphasis slightly purely and simply to the themes of loyalty, time, and retribution. An air of verisimilitude (also picking up on themes in the Return of the Cybernauts) is given by the search for a specialist in cybernetics: this is not treated as strange or as something beyond the bounds of reality. The time theme is served by the fact that Dr Armstrong's cybernaut technology from a decade beforehand is revivified and reused in this episode. An interesting theme picked up from the original episode is that of the man in a wheelchair who nonetheless proves lethally dangerous.
The ambivalence of the previous episodes is picked up on, but turned into an ambivalence towards Felix Kane: we *should* feel sympathy towards someone in a wheelchair, in fact he says explicitly that the reason he wants retribution against the Avengers is that they have done something to him which made him half a man. Although we don't see it, it is plainly horrific. This picks up on and reinforces the ambivalence in the previous episode towards the steablishment: whatever they did, they must have done it for good reasons, and the man with the personal mission for revenge is obviously wrong on this. It is not developed why they did this to him, nor where this is supposed to leave him: presumably the Avengers had to do whatever they did to him because he was already doing something bad. I suppose the over-simplistic moral would be: two wrongs don't make a right. Interestingly he wants to perform the retributive act for himself, rather than send a cybernaut to do it, reinforcing the previous episodes' ambivalence towards technology. It seems as if he values humans over the cybernauts, which ought to elicit our sympathy, but actually he wants to do this for the wrong reason, that it won't be slow and painful enough if a cybernaut performs the action. His human sympathy is only on the surface, ensuring that if we have been taken in by him up till this point, we now lose sympathy for him, and instead our sympathies are elicited for The Avengers, whom we know don't go around causing pain purely for cruelty.
Some of the visual devices from the previous two episodes are re-used to great effect, the most obvious example being the cybernauts breaking in through doors again. Interestingly the pushing-cybernauts-over devise is resued but turned round by being applied to cut outs of the Avengers, and even by Steed on the man from the ministry. Purdey tries to shoot Kane at one point.
The theme of different approaches to technology amongst the Avengers themselves is also reused: Steed becomes the epitome of tradition, relatively speaking, because of the way he lives and his surroundings. Purdey's flat is frankly like being inside a headache. Gambit's flat is the one that is bang up to date - although how dated it looks now - I love the electric bed, used to great effect by Purdey. Incidentally the scene with Gambit in bed shows how differently actors have to look now: he looks like a normal person and has hair under his arm, rather than being ripped and waxed to Ken-doll perfection as he probably would be now.
Once again it is technology that causes the downfall of the cybernaut, in this case the application of plastic skin to him, causing his cybernaut technology to seize up.
What this episode does very well is to picture the cybernaut technology differently. One of the reasons the cybernauts did not picture well in colour was that they looked too obviously like people dressed up as robots, without the sinister look they got in black and white. Here, while there are plainly  people inside the cybernaut costumes, the cybernauts (when first shown) do not look the same as they did in the last episode, but are clearly more robotic, which is explained by them being the most advanced that Dr Armstrong ever used, presumably in development in the last episode. The cybernaut who takes the machine they need from Dr Mason's secret office looks less effective, as he looks like the cybernauts did in the last episode. It works very well also to use the cybernaut technology and attach it to a real person who will himself do the hurting.
I like Steed a lot in this: I like the wreckage of his house after the party and the way he tells his housekeeper to avoid the spare bedroom if she is of high moral fibre. He is unmistakably the old Steed, talking about his misspent youth, yet totally an establishment figure at the same time. Macnee somehow manages to do this without coming across as an old roue! The sexual chemistry of the show is entirely transferred to Purdey and Gambit. I don't object to this change of role for Steed at all - he does obviously still relate to women, it just feels different, more mature, and for the purposes of the story he was already getting into the role of an older, mentor figure in the Tara King series of The Avengers.
I end this review with somewhat mixed feelings, since I've wound up not disliking this story arc at all. I do actually like this episode a lot, but I think for probably a lot of the wrong reasons, since I tend to watch the New Avengers with different expectations from those I bring to the original Avengers. I watch The Avengers because it is The Avengers, I watch The New Avengers because it is a jolly romp down memory lane into the 1970s, much more the spirit with which I approach The Professionals, although as I said there are undertones of the old Avengers atmosphere to be found. I feel it was a mistake to carry on with the cybernauts theme beyond the original one: visually is didn't transfer well to colour, it feels just plain derivative. It would have been better being done differently, for example if the cybernaut technology was implanted in people so that the ineffective costumes were totally unnecessary. So from me a thumbs up for The New Avengers, but a thumbs down for the cybernaut theme, even though this episode is a good try at reusing material from previous series.

The Avengers Series 5 Episode 17: The Return of the Cybernauts

Compared to the original Cybernauts episode, this is very much a continuation of the same themes that I commented on in my previous post on that episode: the threat of technology if it should get out of hand, the danger of establishment figures going to the bad, conflict between the world of tradition and the brave new world of the future, and especially an ambivalence towards the world of technology opening up.
This episode uses exactly the same visual devices as the last one did to make essentially the same points, starting immediately from the cybernaut bursting into a stately home, exactly the same way The Cybernauts started, indicating the irresistible break-in of the technological world. Other visual devices repeated from The Cybernauts are repeated contrasts, such as Beresford using a computer contrasted with Mrs Peel going through paper records; even the toaster sequence at the end is a contrast in terms of low-tech safe technology compared to the cybernauts. The device of attempting and failing to kill a cybernaut with a gun is also repeated. Even the denouement is similar with Steed turning two cybernauts against the baddies.
Once again Steed and Mrs Peel have different approaches to futuristic things: for example Mrs Peel likes Paul Beresford's modern bronze, and Steed doesn't like it at all. An ambivalence towards technology and the future is indicated by Steed having a car phone in his otherwise vintage car.
There is a slight difference in emphasis here over The Cybernauts: the establishment is no longer seen as the benevolent or neutral force to be protected. This is shown when Professor Chadwick comments that he has also previously created 'a new horror': that this was for a (or presumably the ) government is shown by his comment that his only reward then was a pittance and a government pension. This places the government's evil doings on an exact par with Paul Beresford's, *in Professor Chadwick's eyes*. This differs in allowing that possibility but also creates yet another level of ambivalence: in The Cybernauts Armstrong was merely one disaffected scientist, but here the Avengers are protecting the world from people who see their evil as justified by being on a par with what the government does.
Beresford's own reason for what he does is also different: it is purely and simply a personal vendetta against the Avengers on the part of Armstrong's brother, to revenge his death.
Mrs Peel and Steed's relationship differs here, rather than acting like an old married couple, his concern for her is almost fatherly when he talks to her about how at home she seems with Beresford.
Once again I love the truly Avengers touches of this episode: the ditsy secretary who says to the cybernaut that big men 'send' her. My favourite bit of it is I think also open to criticism: when Beresford takes control of Mrs Peel through a watch and brings her straight to him is both great visually and also so ridiculous that it could only happen in The Avengers. I love the sitting room of Paul's house: I love the way the Avengers repeatedly show the outside of a house and then an interior that couldn't conceivably be in the building. For a house of that size the sitting room is impossibly small. I love the contrast of the completely modern interior with the shelves of leather-bound books (some of them a set that repeatedly appear in Avengers sets, including Steed's Series 5/6 apartment) and I love that the sitting room has a bar.
I would repeat my criticism of The Cybernauts: the number of well-known actors distracts from the plot somewhat (in addition to Peter Cushing there are Fulton Mackay (Porridge) and Charles Tingwell (Emergency Ward 10 and the Miss Marple films with Margaret Rutherford)), and I do feel that Steed and Mrs Peel need to be showcased against a relatively bland background of other actors. Similarly the cybernauts don't look so good in colour as they did in black and white - nowhere near as sinister, but I do love the bit where one is being driven along in a car to kill Beresford's lawyer.
Just one unfortunate visual thing: some of the movements made by Steed and Mrs Peel in the closing credits unfortunately mirror the cybernauts' movements! So once again a mixed review from me: I think I would probably rate it slightly less than The Cybernauts because it is not so effective visually - the sets aren't as good for example - and it is actually an episode trying to hitch a ride on the tails of another.

The Avengers Series 4 Episode 3: The Cybernauts

I must start this post with a confession of an Avengers fan heresy: I'm not frantically keen on the cybernauts story arc. One of the reasons I wanted to do these posts on these stories is that I want to try to get further into the stories to see what it is that people are so keen on!
This episode opens with a scene which sets the context of the story very clear: conflict between tradition and the brave new world of new technology. The cybernauts is therefore one of the Avengers episodes which features a fear - or perhaps ambivalence - towards modern technology. The traditional background is set plainly by the traditional furnishings of the room into which the cybernaut smashes his way, even down to the line of guns in a rack on the wall. I feel I recognise the sofa as the one on which the girls line up for their instructions in How to Murder. The way the cybernaut smashes through the door - a recurring theme of this episode - signifies the forcible entry of the future. The conflict between tradition and the brave new world is emphasised by the failure of the gun to kill - or indeed have any effect at all - on the cybernaut. Try as you might, you will be defenceless in a world in which technology runs rampant.
The scene where Steed and Mrs Peel set the background amidst the wreckage is one of my favourites in this episode. Fans often don't like it because of the relatively dowdy way Mrs Peel dresses, but you frankly wouldn't need a black leather cat suit for what she is doing here, since her role is more that of researcher than woman of action. When she does get into leather towards the end, it looks to me more like something Cathy Gale would have worn than a classic Emma Peeler, reinforcing her brainbox woman of recherche knowledge image in this episode.
It is not as simple as a straightforward conflict between the past and the future, though, it is more ambivalent than that, indicated by the scenes at the Harachi corporation and the karate dojo. On the one hand the Avengers are looking towards an ancient culture different to theirs for the answer to this problem, and on the other hand this ancient culture is also relatively new to Europe and apparently the vehicle for the invasion of the frightening new technology. There cannot have ever been a time in which a Japanese business man of great sophistication and good English would begin a letter with the words 'Honourable Gentleman', but the caricature of a Japanese accent with which Steed reads the letter indicates a suspicion of foreigners. This suspicion is actually a hindrance to the Avengers, since it leads them to a red herring: the karate dojo is not the source of the strange events at all. The complexity here has further layers added by the conflicting attitudes towards women at the dojo.
This complexity I think makes this Avengers really well plotted, giving it much in common with a conventional detective story. I'm torn, though, as to what I think about Mrs Peel's knowledge of karate. The whole point of the Avengers world is that it is not real, however I wonder whether there is anything Mrs Peel couldn't do! This apparent omniscience is a common theme for both Mrs Gale and Mrs Peel, only changing with Tara King. What makes this incredible - although this may not matter as I said - is that I find it difficult to believe that somebody with the apparent skill at karate Mrs Peel has, would not be generally known to the British karate world of the 1960s. She must have learned it somewhere, practised it somewhere, and so on. On the other hand it is clearly a plot device to add to the clash of cultures: modern liberated 'girl' using an ancient Japanese - and therefore foreign - martial art.
The scene in the dojo ends with Mrs Peel picking up her shoes and walking off - thoroughly emancipated girl - and is very cleverly immediately followed by the sight of Steed's bowler hat walking along above a partition. This visual clash is not enough, because where he walks into is an office set up in the style of a traditional Japanese home, even to the extent of being offered tea. Even more confusingly the 'geisha' girl behind the desk is called Smith.
I love the scene where Steed uses a camera hidden inside his umbrella - the symbol of his traditional-ness, to spy on Tusamo's papers on his desk. I love that Steed and Mrs Peel act like an old married couple in this one: she even dusts him with a feather duster at one point. My perception of Steed in this series is that he can come across as a bit of a dirty old man at times, and there's much less of that in this episode. Steed and Mrs Peel drive off in wildly differing cars at the end, signifying different approaches to technology.
Steed, however, is the one who makes what he describes as 'skeleton keys' to United Automation by cutting around the appointment card he already has. He is not afraid to use technology, or even abuse it, to the extent of tapping on an unprogrammed cybernaut's face. Perhaps this is as a result of living in a post-James Bond world but I personally would have been afraid to step into the lift for the second time! Ironically when Mrs Peel arrives at United Automation she is much more wary of the technology but till gets into the lift... Of course Steed also uses the technology - of the pen - at the end to destroy another technology - the cybernaut in the denouement.
The locus for the baddie in this episode is quite interesting - despite a procession of likely suspects, many of them (whisper) foreign, it is actually quite straightforward. Armstrong perceives that he was rejected by the ministry, the ministry decided he had to go since he is plainly a liability, and he has gone to the bad. Technology is not really the enemy in this episode, the real enemy is a man who goes to the bad and uses technology to the wrong ends. The establishment has to be defended because *we* know how to use technology safely, and won't try to rule the world with it. Except when we do.
A weakness of this episode, I feel, is that it has too many familiar actors, which distracts from the actual plot of the episode, since one is always thinking 'Isn't that...?' I don't like the scene when Steed runs his umbrella round the ribbed surface inside the lift. I know this is endearing to a lot of fans, but Steed is a gentleman and I just feel he wouldn't do that. I also think I've identified why I don't take to the cybernauts story arc - all of the things I've described - the clash of cultures, etc - are bang up my street, but this episode is let down by the technology being of its time. I don't mean the fictional cybernaut and pen technology, but I feel the episode is unduly dated by including the real punch card technology of the time. If I was watching this in the 1960s it would no doubt have added an element of verisimilitude, but it has caused the episode to date badly.
I feel of the three cybernauts Avengers episodes this is the one where the cybernauts themselves work best. They are much more convincing in blacks and greys, and would perhaps have been better for being redesigned to make them look more convincing in the colour episodes. I do love some of the completely Avengers touches on this one, such as the engineer cybernaut wearing a completely unnecessary flat cap, what becomes a recurring theme of pushing over the cybernaut!
So all in all a mixed verdict from me. Certainly blogging about this episode has helped me both appreciate it more and understand why I don't really take to it. More on the cybernauts anon...

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Department S: The Bones of Byrom Blain

Like A Small War of Nerves, this is another Department S episode that - to me at least - feels very like a late Avengers episode, in plot, underlying themes, dialogue, & even bizarreness.
At first gasp, the name Marling Dale, the army base at which the events of the first scene of this episode happen, sounded extremely familiar. I was sure it was used as the name of a location in The Avengers, & am disappointed to discover that the research station in The Positive-Negative Man was called Risley Dale, but I'm still hoping to post in the future that Marling Dale is used elsewhere when I find it!
Jason King starts off the episode in his usual playboy mode, but soon moves into all-knowing Steed mode. When he searches Blain's car, it fees very much like scenes in How to Succeed...At Murder, & The Fear Merchants, where Steed examines a car, only with the chauffeur in this case taking the role of Mrs Peel.
If this were an episode of The Avengers it would be one of the ones where a member of the Establishment is corrupt. It even has the undercurrent of distrust of technology, in this case the doubtful results given out by the computer, named Auntie. The bizarre cover-up, of planting skeletons 'made to measure' (as Jason King puts it) in place of people kidnapped, covers a typically grandiose Avengers-style plot for world domination by infiltrating the world's intelligence systems. The hypnotism motif is another classic Avengers device.  The un-straightforward nature of the crime propels this story into a weirdness that even exceeds Department S's normal remit.
In fact, the Department don't feel so much like a police department as they could do, at all. It is episodes like this which showcase the reason for the oft-repeated idiom that Department S so wanted to be The Avengers. For myself I personally like the  episodes with an Avengers feel for themselves, they were one of the things that attracted me to this series in the first place. This is not to deride the jetset in sophisticated - for the time - locations episodes: I like them for different reasons, but I personally prefer these examples.
I love the scene of King dining at a 'pub' called The Nag's Head, which he obviously disdains right from the start. Certainly the sophistication of the menu, wine & waiter in evening dress would be way above any 'pub' of the time! - in fact would make it much more like a sophisticated inn like the Spread Eagle at Thame. But nonetheless, poor King for having to put himself through that trauma! The Nag's Head, however provides the forever England setting for much of the action: an alternation between the corridors of power and a village pub creates the required Avengersland feeling.
Sullivan takes on a Tara King role, by forcing his way in to see the general responsible for the project Blain was working on, creatively yet fruitlessly. When he learns the magic words 'Operation Groundshield' the general unbends to see him in an hour. Sir Curtis takes an a Mother role, picking up on the more vulnerable aspects of Mother's personality in being among those kidnapped, replaced by a skeleton, & hypnotised.
Actually, I think I may be overstating the Avengers borrowing: if you take away the Avengers features, you're actually left with a decent detective story. It's also one that manages to be puzzling enough to maintain its interest to the end, the real plot covered up by the skeletons is real enough to be convincing. The only completely unreal element of the story is actually the skeletons: it is inconceivable that in the time frames available a person could be reduced to a hinged & animated skeleton with connected bones and no flesh! That said, the incredible plot device fulfills its function of an effective diversion. Within the skeleton as distraction device, a further improbability is raised when the plotters at one point are seen to produce a skeleton for Annabelle: it would be incredibly difficult to get dental record, etc, necessary to create the skeletons, at short notice!
The story is also paced just right, the only fluff is where King says he's been dragged across Paris when he's actually come from the Caribbean, the supporting cast are just right for their parts & don't overpower the leads. All in all, this is an excellent Department S episode.

Friday, 8 November 2013

Department S: A Small War of Nerves

My take on this episode of Department S is that the plot is actually straight out of The Avengers stable, an opinion which doesn't seem to be shared by anyone else, since the general opinion on the internet seems to be that this is a straightforward 1960s ITC detective/spy story.
I haven't made it explicit, but I've adopted a policy of not doing episode synopses on this blog: after all the reader who has managed to get here can also get to episode guides to most of the series I watch, elsewhere on the internet, so I'll content myself with commenting on how this episode strikes me.
The basic premise is the very Avengers one of both fascination with modern technological and chemical developments, & fear of their possible repercussions if they get out of control. In this case the powers of order, the Establishment, are contrasted with Gregory Halliday, a lone scientist who has beome concerned at the safety of the chemical weapons his department is working at. He means to demonstrate the danger of these weapons by stealing a container of enough nerve agent to kill a million people. Dr Stapeley, who is the head of the Chemical and Biological Warfare Department at Lansdowne Park, that is Halliday's own department, is portrayed as the voice of the Establishment view, which is that Britain must have these weapons as a deterrant, given that other nations have them. In the visual language of 1960s television, you can tell he represents the Establishment by his pinstripe suit & horn rim spectacles.
Mark King is posited as the voice of the radical position: that weapons these dangerous are too dangerous to possess at all, & in the last scene he is the one who resolves the situation by grabbing the vial as Halliday collapses & drops it. In his camp way he tells Stapeley that he is 'constantly' amused - Stapeley is clearly irritated by his position - but terrified by this substance.
What makes this very Avengers is that at no point is Halliday portrayed as a traitor, or baddie in any way. In fact the only way you would get a large vial of nerve agent out of a -presumably - secure research establishment is by being trusted. Halliday is a good chap, in a very Avengers way the establishment man who has gone wrong somehow. The real baddies of the piece are the men who kidnap him & try to get him to tell them, by torture, where the nerve agent is hidden. In reality the theme of this episode is that of fighting for the Establishment, which is ultimately good, placed at threat in this instance by an establishment man who hads cracked under the pressure, leaving our nation's safety at risk by the real baddies. Additionally the episode exposes a weakness in the establishment's security: I describe the container for the Otriox 5 as a vial because it is, but it's a large vial, & Halliday was able to get it out of the establishment. The placing of the real threat & the chemical aspect of this story are what put it in the Avengers stable.
This episode also allows development of Jason King's character - although even in the series of the Avengers where he was clothed by Pierre Cardin, Steed never managed the peacock finery of King. Most of the attention is on King out of the Department S staff in this episode - there are parallels of this in other episodes, though. Here he shows unexpected depth, in his vehement opposition to chemical warfare. He comes across as a rather waspish character in his criticism of Annabelle's research, but he ultimately does the majority of the actual action in this episode, ultimately taking the lead in the denouement.
Sir Anthony Hopkins plays a sweaty, dirty, unshaven & tortured Halliday to great effect. Since the rest of the Department S crew sink relatively into the background, his character actually provides an excellent foil to King's flamboyance. The scene where you can see that his right hand has been tortured provokes the viewer's sympathy for him permanently. By this time Hopkins was already Olivier's understudy, but doesn't overly outbalance the other actors in this episode.
Further stars for me in this & all Department S episodes are the 1960s-era outdoor scenes, which in this episode includes some London street scenes. Some fairly straightforward spy-fi plot devices, such as the head-on car confrontation & the obligatory underground car park scene, don't go amiss to help along the 1960s spy-fi feel of this. The device of King suddenly producing a letter from Halliday's daughter at the end is not necessary for the plot - clearly he is trying all avenues to stop Halliday destroying a million people - he might as well have gone straight on to the negotiation which follows. I like how King tells Halliday to throw the vial - Halliday clearly doesn't want to really, but has been driven to this by his concerns about chemical warfare.
In summary an enjoyable 1960s romp which tips its cap to The Avengers, while it also manages to be the vehicle for a deeper message about chemical warfare.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Sapphire and Steel Assignment 5 Episode 6

So far I've largely managed to avoid the human drama inherent in this Sapphire and Steel assignment, but from the last episode to this the final one, the human drama and time drama that Sapphire and Steel are investigating, begin to intertwine more obviously. To start with a conclusion, mirroring the inverted Agatha Christie motif by inverting a logical argument: the nature of time is enclosed in and works through the events of human life. Just as Sapphire and Steel are excellent complements of each other's abilities, time needs human events to manifest.
The episode starts on the day after midsummer day in 1930, the day on which the world will end unless George McDee dies, as he does when time is on the 'right' track. Unfortunately time has wrenched events back to 1930 to alter the existing course of things so that George McDee's work on DNA will bring the world to an end. He previously died in a fire in the library of the house, but the episode starts with Sapphire commenting that there is now no evidence of a fire, and that the day will otherwise continue as it should except that George McDee will not die. Sapphire and Steel's task is to force time into a different course so that the world will not end.
The deceit theme is continued with ongoing theories as to who is lying about who actually murders George McDee. This hampers Sapphire and Steel because they need to make sure the murder happens 'exactly as it did before'. It's frankly no surprise that there was a murder in this house, since it seems there are loads of liaisons going on among the people in the house, and much of the human drama of this episode revolves around George McDee's loves. Emma Mulreen is once again wonderful as a rather deranged old lady: I wonder whether the nightie she wears for this episode was chosen deliberately to increase this effect!
What it boils down to is for Sapphire and Steel to make sure George McDee dies, and in the right way. The question comes down to whether he will be killed by his wife Felicity, or by Emma Mulreen. Steel queries whether it should be Felicity, she doesn't kill him, and Sapphire asserts that the right moment has been missed. Time is now on the wrong track so Sapphire takes time back, and we see how she should kill him, but strangely she doesn't do it. The conclusion is that that is not the right moment after all.
It next appears as if Lord Mulreen is going to kill McDee in a row over business and Emma Mulreen, but they are interrupted by the butler at the door and the moment has gone. That was also not the right moment.
A weakness of the way the plot is worked out is that by now it is perfectly obvious who is going to kill McDee. While personally I think this assignment is paced just right, if this episode were translated back into the detective genre, this episode is equivalent to the meeting in the library when the detective goes through the various suspects and explains why they couldn't have done it. For that reason it would have been better as ten minutes at the end of an episode, rather than a whole episode, because it actually makes the ending rather flat, since roughly half way through this episode the viewer will just sit back and know what is coming next.
Once again the moment is missed, so interestingly Sapphire and Steel actually have to urge Emma Mulreen to kill George McDee. She shoots Felicity instead, saying she now plans to be happy. Sapphire and Steel continue to urge her to kill McDee. Sapphire and Steel do hard cop and soft cop extremely well, Sapphire gently trying to persuade her to kill her lover! He also gently tries to persuade her to kill him, and let Felicity live: this is possible since we are still on the alternative, wrong, time track.
Sapphire takes time back again to the time when McDee and both women are alive. This time it ends as it should: Emma shoots McDee as he gets in the way to try to stop her shooting his wife and the laboratory bursts into flames from a bunsen burner knocked over.
Sapphire takes time forward to the start of the party in 1980. Sapphire and Steel leave as the first guests arrive, and their luggage vanishes after them.
I find this assignment satisfying because of its human interest, and the way that this sparks off Sapphire and Steel's personalities. Of course I have no way of knowing whether the detective-story-as-distraction-from-the-matter-in-hand motif was actually in the writer's mind, but I feel that that is certainly a valid way to read this story. The way that I criticised in the first post on this assignment, i.e. Sapphire and Steel as more than usually passive witnesses to an Agatha Christie mystery, may also be a valid way, but I feel that that misses some of the point of this assignment. I feel much of the point is actually the intermingling of the detective story with the time disturbance, and while I have tried to see it mostly from Sapphire and Steel's point of view, the intermingling is necessary and unavoidable.
Another interesting aspect of this assignment is that if you had never watched Sapphire and Steel before, you would perhaps not be totally clear that the enemy is actually Time itself, since Sapphire and Steel mostly merely refer to it as 'it'. What is not completely followed through on is the thesis they talk about at the beginning that Time must have taken over or be using someone or something in the house: the human interest takes over at the end of the assignment, obscuring the fact that the enemy is actually Time.

Sapphire and Steel Assignment 5 Episode 5

Once again the closing events of the last episode - the insulting toast and death - are recapped briefly. It's not everyone who's examined by a dead doctor who is then able to walk though a locked door. The dead body just vanishes in front of their eyes.
Sapphire and Steel reveal to the Harboroughs that they think they will be the next victims, as they are the youngest. Steel wonders how humans destroy each other, and Sapphire, with greater understanding of humans, comments that they have so many ways.
Annabelle Harborough is the next apparent victim, but Sapphire and Steel tell Harborough that in reality nobody has been murdered, it is because for consistency's sake everybody not alive in 1930 is having to be eliminated.
Naturally Harborough does not accept that their explanation, so Sapphire locks him in the room from them, and they tell him who they really are. They show him the truth by showing him the people who have apparently died, talking to him. They focus on Greville the butler, who has just found that the door handles that killed Harborough's wife were electrified. Of course all this is merely to keep him busy so that Sapphire and Steel can focus on the real mystery. This is an inversion of the distraction motif in this assignment: so far 'it' has been attempting to distract Sapphire and Steel, but now Sapphire and Steel are distracting the humans to keep them occupied.
Sapphire manages to drag the office back to the present, and Steel uses parts from the radio to generate a signal that will open the door. I like this bit for the total lack of social grace with which Steel pushes the secretary out of the way to use her computer. As he returns to the drawing room the door returns to its 1930 appearance.
It is also apparent in this episode how Sapphire and Steel actually complement each other very well, as she plays bridge with the other guests, and charms the secretary into helping them. Meanwhile Steel is operating the computer remotely by waving his finger around. She won't help them, but of course Steel has got the answer. George McDee's body was found in the ashes of the library, according to the newspaper report they find.
Sapphire and Steel use Harborough as a spy to find out the details of McDee's work from Lord Mulreen. They enter the office - transformed back into the 1930-era laboratory. Harborough picks up a culture which McDee knocks into his face. Harborough interrupts Sapphire and Steel's argument about whether there could ever have been a fire in the library by entering the library and dying, with a burned face. The library clock strikes midnight - it is the day when the world will end, June 22nd, 1930.
This episode changes the feel again, to a more normal Sapphire and Steel episode, where they begin to act to deal with the time disturbance. The Christie novel fades into the background to allow this to happen.

Sapphire and Steel Assignment 5 Episode 4

The murder at the end of the last episode is recapped in slightly greater detail than previously, including questions as to where the other people in the house are. Of course I intend to stick to my theory that the Agatha Christie-style mystery is a distraction from the real business of Sapphire and Steel, investigating the time disturbance in the house.
Miss Emma gives another wonderful portrait of derangement, saying she must get the butler to tidy the dining room - tidy up the dead body, obviously - before dinner. Sapphire comments that motives are irrelevant, they're the setting for the time disturbance. She also comments that 'it' is getting closer, to which Steel replies that 'it' is fooling them by setting them puzzles, that they're innately bound to solve. So the sense of distraction is now clearly on the surface. Sapphire comments that they have a chance of winning though because 'it' has to deal with them both as Sapphire and Steel and Miles and Virginia. As they say this the dead body in front of them starts to change, ageing, going forwards in time - despite Steel trying to persuade Sapphire that ageing moves things backwards in time. Even the dining room becomes covering in dust and cobwebs as if it had just lain there for fifty years. It is interesting that while Steel picked up on the fact that 'it' is trying to trick them, he is so disorientated that Sapphire has to correct him on something which evidently seems totally simple to her, as it should to him.
They become aware that the gun is not in the same time frame as everything else in the room, it isn't marked or dusty, and Sapphire comments that it's going to be used again. Steel's normally calm demeanour slips markedly when he even has a note of panic in his voice as he tells Sapphire to get us back - now! Not only is he confusing times but is panicked by the fact that the dining room is apparently moving forward to 1980 around them.
The next 'trick' is the predictable one that the body vanishes, after the guests accuse Howard McDee of having a motive after blackmailing the victim. Steel is back on form enough to comment that he doesn't feel that is the solution to the problem. Sapphire's psychometry of the two murder weapons reveals that they were not used by a living soul to kill the victims. Steel makes the sense of deceit in the house explicit by verbalising it. Sapphire picks up the knife and goes to stab herself in the chest with it. Steel stops her doing this by pushing against the point of the blade with his hand.She then holds the gun to his forehead, says she is not sorry about this, squeezes the trigger, and finds he has removed the bullets. What Sapphire learns from this is the need to kill in the house. Sapphire also explicitly states the distraction motif: the 'power' resides in the house, and everything is irrelevant beside the central intention, to take time back to 1930 until time takes a different course. 'It' wants to rearrange history in 1930 so that the world ends. It focuses on the revivified George McDee. As Sapphire and Steel leave the library, we see the gun disappear.
I have ignored the Agatha Christie strand of this episode so far, keeping to my policy of trying to understand this assignment from Sapphire and Steel's point of view and treating everything else as part of the distraction, but at this point the Agatha Christie and Sapphire and Steel strands of the story merge. The guests have questioned why Lord Mulreen is so happy to have Steel investigate two apparent murders, and since he has told them and repeats that he is a detective of sorts, he - in true cosy detective story tradition - tells the assembled guests in the drawing room that he knows who will be murdered next. He advises Howard McDee not to take the next few hours too lightly. The dinner gong interrupts before any further questions can be asked, but clearly Steel has begun to suss what is happening.
During dinner - in which Sapphire has to tell Steel the social niceties - Emma Mulreen takes a trip to Lord Mulreen's office, transformed into George McDee's laboratory, to see him. It is clear that they are lovers. The time disturbances are felt as air and technology disturbances by Lord Mulreen's present-day secretary.
The next death is Howard McDee, just after he proposes an insulting toast to Mulreen and McDee, which is where the episode ends.
If this were purely a murder mystery, Sapphire and Steel would normally be considered the likely culprits - which indeed they are, and their presence questioned. However it is twisted in this story so that Steel is finally accepted as a fit person to investigate the murders. This is likely because of the seething tensions that are becoming apparent amongst the guests: they're really so wary/jealous, etc, of each other that they accept the initially unlikely outsider as the only neutral person to investigate.
There is, however a weakness to the Sapphire and Steel side of the story: 'Time takes over a house and its occupants with a view to causing the end of the world in 1930' is frankly rather a thin plot. Dramatically the parts of the story that I am treating as distractions from the main story that Sapphire and Steel are interested in, are essential to give interest to the plot. In fact it is the interaction of these two elements that make this assignment work so well.

Sapphire and Steel Assignment 5 Episode 3

Once again this episode features a short recap, of Sapphire and Steel in the library, and the discovery of the first dead body. Emma Mulreen's response, 'Come, along, you're spoiling it all, we weren't going to play murders until after dinner,' is suitably deranged for the character she is playing. From the all-important point of view and Sapphire and Steel, the question is whether 'it' or someone in the house killed her, and the assertion that that could be one and the same. Once again I don't feel that Sapphire and Steel are actually the witnesses to the action: it is as if the Christie-esque aspects of this adventure are still distractions: the characters no longer have the inklings they did have that there is something wrong with time, but Sapphire and Steel are seeing what is happening in a deeper way than the others are.
Humanly Felicity McDee (McDee's 1980s widow, played by Nan Munro, gives the first hints of being an opposing strong character to Emma Mulreen, going into Miss Marple mode at this point, offering a commentary on who was present while they're trying to get the police. Do I really need to say the phone is dead? - This is the first comment after the murder that the ever-focused Steel pays attention to: he is so little focused on his cover story he has to ask Sapphire his name. I love the way she rolls her eyes as he tells him! In response to 'this is not a damned story, this is real,' Steel replies, 'Is it?' By this he calls to mind the way in which Time has played tricks on people in their previous assignments by rearranging the times at which things have happened to create the unreal. I'm delighted to say that Steel obviously agrees with my verdict that the Christie context story is an obvious distraction from the real issue here!
The door theme is repeated by the fact the front door won't open, again a clearly Christie reference to a completely closed environment, transposed into a more sci-fi venue. Dry ice is used to indicate something outside coming in. Sapphire's commentary is that there is no 'conventional' way out, indicating her deeper understanding while the guests are puzzling over a chair broken in an attempt to break a window to get out.
The 1970s fad for ley lines is brought in as an explanation for why that particular house was chosen for the time disturbance. While this may seem an unnecessarily 'quack' way to explain it, it would probably have worked well at the time as an example of alternative knowledge, grounding Sapphire and Steel's alternative knowledge into the alternative knowledge of the time, and making the story more real. Unfortunately this device has not worn well, and makes it seem unnecessarily dated now.
The alternative knowledge (still unfortunately based in the time) theme is reinforced by Sapphire reading Anthony Purnell's wine glass. She sees him trying to kiss Mulreen's secretary, who knows she is two-timing her, but he says he will get rid of Veronica. This episode is effective because it is clearly distraction into the human emotions of the people rather than the time problem that Steel is focusing on. He looks suspicious, but in fact it is after that it is discovered that he is missing. At this point the other guests challenge Sapphire and Steel's presence there. They have clearly been distracted themselves, because the cover story for Sapphire and Steel was clearly explained in the first episode. Steel somewhat surprisingly attributes their lapse of memory to a 'tear in the fabric of time', of which it is one of the symptoms. This continues the theme of time distracting people from what is really happening, and Sapphire and Steel as the agents of reality. It is plain that Mulreen's memory, and those of the other guests, have been completely transposed to the reality of the 1930s. Steel's interpretation is that this change or loss of memory is to make it impossible to know what is happening outside the house 'assuming there is an outside,' he says. There is now no past or future. Veronica's body has disappeared, the knife that stabbed her lying on the floor under the sheet she was covered with. Steel tried to find the logic to these occurrences, and an explanation is sought in what McDee is working on in his office, a genetic treatment for disease. Sapphire views what he is doing: she sees that his carelessness with the virus he is working on will cause the planet's extinction unless he dies the next day, as he did before Time disturbed the chronology.
Tony Purnell turns up behind the dining room curtains, saying somebody or thing has tried to kill him, and asking for Cavendish/Steel. Significantly he knows who to ask for, rather than treating him suspiciously. The butler makes the mistake of leaving him alone in the dining room and the candles go out. An invisible McDee is invoked into the library by Sapphire and Steel, meanwhile. Steel tried to persuade him to stop his work, but unfortunately Sapphire 'loses' him, he walks out and it is at that moment the butler comes for Steel. Sapphire tells Steel not to go: there is a gunshot. An additionally Christie element is given by the fact that Steel has forgotten something Sapphire told him: it is not entirely clear who is on which side in this story, and this device gives the appearance of Steel being influenced by Time's disturbance as well, despite his steely single-minded focus. This is an interesting position for Steel to be in, and uses well the deception or distraction theme of this story. Despite Steel's disinterest in anything other than their assignment, even he can be distracted by Time. Of course Purnell has been shot.
I like the slightly faster pace of the action in this episode. I also like the fact that at this halfway point through the assignment it is not possible for the viewer really to know what is going on, since Sapphire and Steel don't either. This episode makes a convincing use of detective story plot devices to create the right amount of distraction and deception.

Sapphire and Steel Assignment 5 Episode 2

One of the criticisms often levelled at Sapphire and Steel is that the episodes move at a significantly slower pace than we would expect nowadays. Of course that was partly the fashion of the time: I also think Sapphire and Steel do not work viewed in the back-to-back way that boxsets encourage, but benefit from being seen an episode at a time. For that reason, this episode's recap of the previous episode is refreshingly (and surprisingly) short, merely of Sapphire going on a psychic or out-of-body journey through the door of Lord Mulreen's office, and Steel fruitlessly calling for her to come back. If you come in to the assignment here, that actually recaps the previous episode really well: the door is of great significance and there is something terribly strange going on!
Sapphire re-enters her body while Steel is successfully distracting everyone's attention from her motionless body. She tells Steel that 'it' is in there, where something wonderful happened, a sense of euphoria.
At this point Tony Purnell and his girlfriend arrive: they have not gone along with the retro approach to the evening, but turned up in modern clothes. They seem to be immune to the power of whatever 'it' is in the house, they are completely modern people and totally mystified by the strange antics of everyone else, even to the extreme of the outdated telephone exchange he has to use. This reinforces the house as the location of the time disturbance, those coming in from outside are initially unaffected, but after some time in the house Parnell begins to try to remember his father's old exchange. He is also puzzled by the fact that his electric shaver has become an old-fashioned razor. Parnell, though puts it down to all being part of the evening, assuming that everything has been swapped once they were in the house.
At this stage Mulreen's secretary finds the door from the office to the house has become completely impassible. Sapphire comments to Steel that the feel of 'it' has changed, it is now all around them, instead of just in the office. After the guests drink a tea to the dead George McDee, Mulreen's former business partner, he walks into the drawing room. Strangely the reaction among the people present varies, from acceptance that he has just walked in, to astonishment. The strangeness is increased by the fact that McDee does not recognise his own wife: Sapphire comments that he is actually alive and that he is actually due to die the next day. It becomes plain the McDee is straight out of 1930, and treats the guests with a mixture of astonishment and confusion about what generation they belong to. Steel urges Sapphire that they must do nothing until they know which one is being used. McDee enters the now-changed door of the office with no difficulty and the guests applaud, as if it is an act. This is much more in the classic Sapphire and Steel vein: the guests have no understanding that anything strange is happening with time, which is the normal state of the people who normally provide a background to Sapphire and Steel's understanding.
Emma Mulreen announces a game of Sardines, which is used as a device to separate the characters all over the house 'except the servant's quarters'. Patience Collier manages to look frankly deranged from here through the rest of the assignment. She has an absolutely magnificent theatrical presence. Steel, of course, uses the game as a chance to look around, while Sapphire thinks it might be fun if they don't cheat. She finds him in the library: he thinks the book on local history he's found might be useful. While they are in the library the creepy music crescendos and Sapphire has what I can only describe as a spasm: presumably she can feel the activity of 'it' rising and going through her.
It is at this point the first dead body is found: Tony Purnell's girlfriend in a cupboard in the hall, and this is the cliffhanger at the end of this episode.
In many ways this episode does perpetuate the feel of an Agatha Christie novel: the situation has been stated in the first episode, and it is mostly amplified by continuing and growing strangeness in this episode. Another frequent criticism of this assignment is that it could do with fewer episodes. This story could certainly be done effectively with four episodes without greatly altering the story, but I feel what it would miss is the relatively long-drawn-out build up that this episode allows. Sapphire and Steel is all about time, and so the time taken for and by the episodes must be part of the plot. the message here is: Time has caused a disturbance here, possibly caused by an existing fault line of some sort, but because of that Time is in no hurry to do anything about it. Personally I feel that this slower pace actually suits the plot better as well, merging with the 1930s Agatha Christie ethos of the piece.

Sapphire and Steel Assignment 5 Episode 1

 I've picked what is usually considered the odd one out to start writing about Sapphire and Steel, since assignment five was written by Don Houghton and Anthony Read, rather than P. J. Hammond, who wrote the other five assignments. I say usually considered to be different to the others, because while it feels different, I would argue that that is only because it more obviously accesses the obvious cultural reference for the setting for Sapphire and Steel's adventures. There is a recurring theme in the other assignments of Sapphire and Steel finding themselves in a totally enclosed environment: the action of each of the assignments takes place in a setting wholly delineated right at the beginning, whether a petrol station, railway station, etc. What is made explicit in this assignment against the others is its similarity to classic detective stories, specifically Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. In that story ten people who have supposedly committed crimes are invited to s desert islend and killed one by one by a judge who believes that they have evaded justice.
What does feel different is that more emphasis is placed in this assignment on setting the background to Sapphire and Steel's investigation, and on setting the period detail for the adventure. Some reviewers go so far as to feel that the rest of the story almost trumps Sapphire and Steel's role, so that they are almost onlookers to the story. I would disagree with that: I feel it is important to see this story through Sapphire and Steel's eyes and understand their take. It is as if the writers want to distract the viewer with the relative richness of the scene setting from Sapphire and Steel's mission, to discover where a time disturbance has occurred. In fact this distraction is almost exactly the same sort of trick that Time itself plays on people in the series!
For this reason I will avoid giving a lengthy synopsis of the plot and try to focus on the Sapphire and Steel's investigation of the time disturbance, which is not to say I am ignoring the fact that merely making as much effort as Lord Mulreen is making to turn the clock back to 1930 for a weekend, is almost inviting Time to step in! In fact the time theme is apparent right from the first comment, with Emma Mullrine commenting that it is a little 'late' to send roses. There is another interesting time anomaly inserted for us by the mere fact of watching this episode thirty years after it was first broadcast: how very dated Lord Mulreen's office looks. The backwards-looking decor of his house is more classical and so does not actually look as dated as the up-to-date for the 1980s decor and equipment of his office. Of course this would have been read differently by viewers at the time: they would have read it as intended: an attempted flight from the present back fifty years to 1930.
Steel (less so Sapphire) would be relatively uninterested in the human relationships and emotions delineated in the first part of the programme. I personally refuse to let Time distract me by the suggestion that Mulreen is having an affair with his secretary, and am more interested in her comment, when he leaves behind the ultrasonic device that opens the door between the office and the house, that he couldn't get back there if he tried. That delineates the point at which the 1980s are left and the time rift opens to take the characters back to 1930. Perhaps one thing which is different in this assignment from the others is the extent to which the characters talk about time: it is as if they either have a limited awareness of what is happening, or else they have such an obsession of time to start with that it invites Time's intervention.
The real Sapphire and Steel story starts with their unusually late entry timed at 12 minutes, when we first hear Steel speak. It is perhaps a little obvious for Mulreen to assume that he is that chap who deals in 'futures', and for Emma Mulreen to ask whether he would mean all our futures. This also does not chime well in this episode with the role that Sapphire and Steel normally take, of entities knowledgeable about time against a background of humans who do not know what is going on. So it is true to say that the roles of Sapphire and Steel contrasted to everyone else are slightly different in this assignment from how they are in the other assignments.
The 'human interest' of this story obviously appeals to Sapphire's character, while merely irritating Steel. When she asks, with obvious relish, which side of the bed he'd prefer, he replies by asking for confirmation that there is no other way to do this one. The entire contents of the house now dates from before 1930. Steel wonders whether the other characters realise that, touching on the role their understanding has in this assignment. Meanwhile the other characters' conversation makes the increasing disturbance of time evident by their varying understanding of what is happening, and even what year it is.
Sapphire and Steel's working hypothesis is that Time has taken over one or more victims among the characters. It is interesting that they magically change into evening dress, yet also manage to remain aloof of being dragged into the time confusion of the other characters. The viewer is invited to become time confused by the 1930s-style music which starts as Sapphire and Steel go down the stairs to join the others, different from the other music playing before. Sapphire and Steel continue to communicate with each other about what is happening, making it evident that this case really is more Sapphire's kettle of fish that Steel's. He is uninterested in the social conventions of the time, having to have them explained to him by Sapphire, even forgetting the name he has chosen for his role, while wanting to focus narrowly on their assignment.
It is only on Sapphire and Steel's entry into the drawing room that the characters are formally introduced both to them and to us. They suspect that Annabelle Harborough could be 'the one' because of her temperature loss, which interestingly is also picked up on by the other characters. Of course Sapphire and Steel pick up on the entrance to the office as being a major problem in the time problem. The episode ends with Sapphire passing 'psychically' through the door, making a noise indicative of shock, and Steel anxiously calling her back.
I feel a major criticism of this episode is one of casting: Davy Kaye, who plays Lord Mulreen is far too young for the role, born in 1916, while Patience Collier, who plays Emma Mulreen, was born in 1910 but in this role looks much older than him, much more convincing when she talks about memories of fifty years before. For me this makes him lack conviction as the major character in this episode. I don't personally dislike the relatively slow build up to the entry of Sapphire and Steel, because it allows the groundwork to be set for the time anomaly to be explained, although trying to see this episode through Sapphire and Steel's eyes, it would either be a source of human fascination, or a source of useless filling.
I feel the Christie milieu is a very interesting development of the previous Sapphire and Steel assignments, in a sense it is the obvious milieu for that development, since it draws parallels with the detective story. The specific theme of Christie's story - evading justice and the need or right to impose justice - is explored more fully in succeeding episodes.